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War and Tragedy
By Thomas D. Segel

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Rules of Engagement and Other Stupid Decisions
(September 15, 2009)

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Harlingen, Texas, September 12, 2009 -- By now you have heard the story. Taliban insurgents ambushed a 13-man team of U.S. Marine and Army advisors assigned to the Afghan National Army as they approached a small hamlet. Repeatedly the Marines called for artillery support that was denied by their commanders and helicopter gunship support that took more than one hour to arrive. The refused support and slow air response caused the unit to suffer eight Afghan soldiers, one interpreter and four Marines to be killed in action.

The uproar across the military community has been deafening and the NATO commanded forces are now investigating why commanding officers rejected repeated calls for artillery fire. They are also looking into the reason why close air support that was supposed to be no more than five minutes away took more than one hour to reach the scene of the battle.

Far be it for me to claim I am some kind of Warfighting Strategist. However, it doesn't take the military intellect of a Patton to understand dumb decisions or political pontification. That being said, I have no reason to believe the current Rules of Engagement (ROE) in Afghanistan originated with those commanders on the ground who are actually engaged in the fighting.

The Rules of Engagement now in effect in that war zone are designed to appease the faint hearted rather than win a war. Are they wrong headed? Yes! Are they tailored in such a way they will harm our troops in the field? We have the bodies of four gallant young Marines along with eight national army dead to prove just how wrong the ROE is for Americans and its allies.

According to military spokesmen, the ROE has been tailored to soften the possibility of civilian casualties. General Stanley McChrystal issued the new ROE restrictions on the use of military force to reduce the risk of further alienating the population, they say.

Colonel Wayne Morris, USMC (Ret) served in the very volatile areas of Kandahar and Helmand through half of 2006 and all of 2008 as an advisor to the Afghan National Army. He says, “With the current ROE in effect, I seriously doubt we will ever get the stabilized level wherein we can turn the tables on the Taliban.” He feels we need to eliminate enough insurgents nor at least neutralize their ability to influence action across a wide area, for any stabilized condition to develop.

Morris also believes we need to empower the Afghan forces to shoulder the load and gain the confidence of the Afghan people. He concludes that comment saying, “They have a long way to go before they are anywhere near being considered a viable force.”

While waiting for that national force to come of age, we must continue to endure politically motivated Rules of Engagement that have nothing to do with protecting the lives of our military warfighters.
Regardless of the war we were fighting, instead of allowing our military experts to determine how we engage in combat, political decision makers, almost from the time the first shots were fired in anger, have restricted those who wear the uniform of our country. In just about every case, politicians created those horrible unintended consequences that resulted in loss of the battle, the loss of victory, and sadly, the loss of American lives. The most heartbreaking example of that political decision-making is the disastrous finale to Vietnam, triggered by our capitulation and withdrawal.

As an infantry Corporal in Korea, I screamed at anyone who would listen as we repeatedly fought our way to strategic high ground, only to withdraw and be forced to take the same real estate over and over again. One of the basic rules of battle is to seize the high ground . . . and hold it.

On another tour of duty, in Saigon everyone wore helmets and carried weapons to and from their various duty assignments. Military personnel were also allowed to wander the streets of that city freely during off duty hours but it was a court marshal offense to carry a weapon. Try to figure the logic of that rule.

As an advisor during the early days of Vietnam we were not even allowed to wear our uniforms or fly the American Flag. At night, on perimeter duty the Marines were not allowed to have ammunition in their weapons. It was locked up in an ammo bunker and one officer had the key. If we were fired upon, the ROE called for him to then open the bunker and issue us ammunition. Those rules seem silly in print, but were very serious to those of us who guarded the compound in the dark of night. Our uniform thought was . . . ”What happens if that first incoming round gets the ammo officer or hits the bunker?” This would have been another example of unintended consequences all military personnel face because of wrong-headed ROE. (It is also true that we ignored those ROE and kept a hidden supply of ammunition on our persons.)

Returning to the words of Colonel Morris, “Tying our Warfighter's hands behind their backs is past unsatisfactory . . . it's criminal! I am not saying we should allow our Coalition Forces to move about freely killing everything in their path, but they must be allowed the leeway to take appropriate, decisive offensive or defensive actions when dealing with insurgents. Not only that, there are a lot of good Afghans who see our approach in dealing with the Taliban as being ‘weak'. That makes many people over there think the Talibs are stronger . . . not in all cases, but as you well know, perceptions are damning.”

Again, it should be noted that Wayne Morris has been on the ground in that war zone and has seen our actions up close and personal. He feels two major aspects of how we are conducting our combat strategy are self-defeating. He names them as “an overly restrictive ROE and the lack of adequate supporting arms.”

He claims the Rules of Engagement have favored the enemy since our involvement after 9-11. He feels we would have captured or killed Osama Bin Laden if our special operators had been allowed to take him down. He claims the ROE is even more restrictive now than it was early in the war. Morris also notes many people are unhappy with General McChrystal. “He is playing the hand he has been dealt by folks in D.C”, says the colonel. “He's no slouch when it comes to fighting unconventional forces, but there would seem to be considerable angst among the operational elements regarding his recent comments that have gone along with the ROE currently in effect.”

The colonel feels the lack of supporting arms have been a major problem from the very start of operations. “With the exception of USMC and some Army forces now operating in Afghanistan, the other Coalition Force partner nations simply don't have adequate supporting arms available to them.” He tells of times in Helmand Province when only two armed helicopters (and on a good day four) were available for the entire province.

He claims that some light artillery was available, but it lacked the range to reach many target areas. He notes further that many of the coalition partner nations have restricted the actions of their forces to the point where they are almost non-combatants. Added together and combined with Rules of Engagement that often disallowed the use of very limited assets created a situation that, in the colonel's own words, “Made a recipe for failure . . . and evidently still does!”

So, as it has always been, the politicians and the political military leaders continue to make decisions and Rules of Engagement that must be followed by Warfighters on the ground. And, as it always has been, those same military men and women continue to fight two enemies. Today it is the Taliban, but forever it has been the politicians who though complete ignorance cost us victory after victory . . . and far too many American lives.

By Thomas D. Segel

Copyright 2009

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